The Impact of AWP, Past and Present
by Mikayla Davis, Poetry Reader
In 2014 I attended my first AWP in Seattle, planning to meet up with one of my creative writing instructors and some classmates from community college. I didn’t know what to expect, having only ever been to anime conventions in the past. But I was just starting to think about grad school, and a writers’ convention seemed like the perfect place to explore my options. If nothing else, I knew my undergraduate institution would be in attendance. It would be nice to gather with old friends and get their take on my plans.
So I made my plans, booked my hotel, scheduled out what panels I wanted to attend. I drove five hours across my home state.
Turns out, planning for panels was a misguided decision—as I became completely enthralled by the Book Fair. There were rows upon rows of booths and tables. There were probably at least fifty tables in each row. They filled this huge hall.Graduate schools, magazine publishers, businesses. People were wandering around, buying books, talking to people behind booths. There were author signings and readings, though the latter couldn’t be heard over the buzz of conversation. I spent hours there, just wandering and looking…but I rarely actually approached the booths, and no one tried to draw me in.
Three years later, I had the opportunity to attend AWP again—this time, manning a booth representing the University of Central Arkansas’s MFA program, the C.D. Wright Women Writers’ Conference, and, of course, Arkana.
My one goal was to engage with participants who, like me in 2014, were just wandering…wanting to ask questions, but not knowing how.
But how does one motivate others to visit your booth, when your budget is limited, and you have three major organizations to try and promote?
This is where my many trips to anime conventions came in handy.
If you’ve never been to one, I can tell you that they are bright, loud, and incredibly exciting. Think about Harry Potter when he first visits Diagon Alley. You don’t know where to look because everything seems interesting. People were drawn to the booths that were there, because they managed to be bigger and brighter than the environment around them. The booths at anime conventions often have activities you can interact with. Whether it’s merchandise or games, there is always something you can put your hands on. When I attended AWP in 2014, most of the booths only promoted free merchandise. Nothing was particularly interactive.
Though AWP is a lot less visually stimulating than an anime convention, I still began to brainstorming the aesthetic of our booth. Arkana could afford to be a lot less flashy than an anime convention, and still be visually appealing.
In order to invite visitors to our booth, we included several items on our table. For vertical appeal, we had a large banner that advertised the conference. For horizontal, we also had a banner that stretched across the bottom of the table that presented us as the UCA MFA program. We had various flyers, informational papers, and even stickers on the booth tables.
We also had a “Poet-tree” made from the branches of an actual tree, that at first blended into the black curtain that served as our separator from other booths. But as visitors began writing on the green paper “leaves” we provided, and hung them on the tree, they provided eye-catching pops of color on the dark backgrounds.
The “Poet-Tree” also doubled as an activity, something we could invite passersby to contribute to. It was something no other booth had.
We had another highly visual activity to draw people in. One of the other faculty members at UCA had happened upon a bubble cup vending machine at a flea market. They later found some cups for that machine, and—luckily for us‚—she was willing to let us use it for our booth at AWP.
We filled the capsules with candy, excerpts from women writers and Arkana contributors, and stickers, and invited attendees to donate a couple of quarters to win the prize.
All of these things really encouraged others to visit our table. Throughout the event, we received comments about how we were the most interesting table they passed by.
But there was really only one thing that really made us successful. If we hadn’t acquired a “Poet-Tree,” or a vending machine, or even tables at all, we could have succeeded with just one thing…our people.
With toothy grins, we stood out in the walkways of the Book Fair, greeting anyone who walked by. We offered flyers, compliments, and conversation. We were almost impossible to ignore. If we were sitting behind the table, it was because we were on break, or needed more supplies to hand out.
We were passionately involved in the process of pulling people in, and it showed. It helped that we truly believed in the organizations we were prompting, and particularly, the mission of Arkana. Our booth was certainly one of the busiest tables, and perhaps one of the most engaging booths at AWP.
While I worked the booth, all I could think of was 2014 me stepping forward and really getting involved in the world of writing conventions and submissions. It was one of the most thrilling and exciting literary experiences of my life. I am already eagerly planning on how to improve our booth for next year.
Mikayla Davis is a UCA MFA candidate who specializes in poetry while dabbling in fiction. After getting her undergraduate degree at Eastern Washington University, she got lost in two-year business degrees from the local community college before finding her way back to the page. She has a love for cats and magic and has been published in various print and online journals.